Wednesday, December 6, 2006

A Tale of Two Books and Four Covers, Part I

(See post below for an introduction to this topic.)

Naomi Novik is a new fantasy author writing an alternate Napoleonic-era world in which each country has, in addition to its army and navy, an aerial corps staffed by dragons and their human companions. Think Aubrey/Maturin, if Maturin had been a dragon. And if you're at all into either fantasy or historical adventure, you must read this series, because it's truly wonderful.

Here is the US cover for the first book:

His Majesty's Dragon - US

And here is the UK cover:

Temeraire - UK

Note the difference in titles. I don't know why this is the case (and the US and UK titles are the same for the second and third books in the series, Throne of Jade and Black Powder War). But my guess is that the publishers concluded that UK readers would have an association for "Temeraire," since several British warships bore that name, including one at Trafalgar, while US readers would not. (Temeraire is the dragon--the human protagonist, formerly a naval captain, names the dragon hatchling after the ship.)

Moving on to the covers, note that both show a black dragon and a tall ship flying a British flag--a perfect choice, IMO. The dragon tells you this is a fantasy novel, the flag reveals that it's set in an alternate version of our world rather than an invented realm, and the ship gives you a good idea of the time frame. Both art departments nailed the "truth in advertising" side of cover design. And, for me at least, dragons and tall ships are both inherently evocative images.

The main differences I see are the backgrounds--a textured scarlet for the American cover and an antique map for the British one--and the relative prominence of the elements. The dragon dominates the US cover, while the UK cover gives more space to the ship. And if you think about the nations' histories, that makes perfect sense. Britain was THE great naval power for quite a few centuries, so the UK cover evokes Trafalgar, Britannia ruling the waves, etc. On this side of the pond, while the US navy has won its share of glory, it's not as much part of our identity, and in any case its finest hour was after the Age of Sail. So the US emphasizes the dragon and therefore the story's fantasy element.

As I stated in my previous post, I like the US cover better. But that's not because I'm more interested in dragons than ships. Patrick O'Brian is one of my top ten favorite authors, probably top five. Put a tall ship on a book, and I've picked it up before I've noticed I'm doing so, with John Masefield ringing through my head. No, what I like about the US cover is that there's a certain stark simplicity about it, with the contrast between the red background and the black dragon framing the ship. It draws my gaze. The UK cover, on the other hand, strikes me as busy. The map background, while beautiful, gives the image a more cluttered look to my eyes, and separating the dragon and the ship makes the cover lack a single focal point. The individual elements are all beautifully done, but it just doesn't grab my attention in quite the same way.

Thoughts? Which cover do you prefer?


Susan said...

I am so with you. The UK cover is nice, and clearly designed by people who understood the book, but totally busy. Maybe if they had kind of faded out the map so it was much more of a vague background...but as it is Temeraire and the words are not standing out enough. I think the font they chose for "Temeraire" was also kinda ill-judged.

belmanoir said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AgTigress said...

Sigh. Alas, I think both covers are a total, catastrophic, hideous mess. Just as well covers don't matter...

;-) :-)

Susan Wilbanks said...

AgTigress, I wonder how much of a difference it makes in this case to have read the book. (Of course, if you have read the book, I'm making a moot point!) Because one of the things that impressed me about both covers is how they managed to convey the essentials of the story with a few simple visual cues.

That said, I'd think the American cover in particular was striking even if I weren't a fan of the book. Just as well tastes differ...


AgTigress said...

I haven't read the book. (A combined dislike for fantasy and for anything even marginally nautical and/or military pretty well ensures that I should not enjoy it! ;-) ), but I thought you explained very clearly in your blog how both covers expressed the essentials of the story in their different ways. This puts them on a different plane from the UK/US comparisons elsewhere on a Lindsey Davis book, where one (the one you preferred) actually conveyed the contents of the book far less well than the other. Again, I heartily disliked both covers, but the UK one said more about the book.

I have read many romance novels that I have enjoyed, and the covers of which have clearly indicated the elements of the story - and I can still loathe and detest the cover. My judgement of covers is simply not based on their faithfulness to the spirit of the book, but on my personal, and possibly idiosyncratic, judgement of their aesthetic value as graphic images - as art and design.

The one 'outside' factor that enters with this particular book is that, as a visual-thinking Brit, I cannot see the name 'Temeraire' without seeing Turner's great painting, so that instantly blocks out all the other images for me anyway.

The American cover, with the small vignette against a background, actually has a slightly old-fashioned look to European eyes. I don't like the layout anyway, but it is one which used to be popular for genre fiction here in, I should say, the 1970s-80s, and is now seldom seen. Not that I dislike things being old-fashioned - on the contrary, innovation is often accompanied by general deterioration.

As you say, it is just as well tastes differ. And perhaps you can see why I do not allow covers to influence my choice of reading matter!

Susan Wilbanks said...

The American cover, with the small vignette against a background, actually has a slightly old-fashioned look to European eyes. I don't like the layout anyway, but it is one which used to be popular for genre fiction here in, I should say, the 1970s-80s, and is now seldom seen.

Interesting. I don't recall seeing such covers on American books in the 70's and 80's. Admittedly I was pretty young then, but I already read a lot, and there are plenty of books of that vintage still to be found in thrift and used book stores. So to me it's a fresh look, and a striking and classy one in comparison to the somewhat garish montages common on 80's books.

This is what I think of as a typical American 80's cover, BTW, from a book that I loved as a teen. Then, the cover seemed completely normal and appropriate to me. Now, it looks hideous:

Maybe I should try comparing covers from a type of book I don't read, just as an intellectual exercise. I'm looking at this from my perspective as reader and occasional bookstore browser (and I do mean occasional--I do most of my shopping online), and I've realized as I've posted that much of my gut reaction to a cover is based on certain codes--stylistic conventions ranging from specific images to colors and fonts that I associate with different types of story. Needless to say, those impressions are far from 100% accurate. But my eyes tend to pass straight over anything with a pastel, watercolor-ish cover--unless I'm shopping for a present for my mom. No matter how beautiful the image is, it signals women's fiction, and probably sweet, wholesome women's fiction, which I don't read, so when I see it in the bookstore, it fades into the background.

Susan Wilbanks said...

Trying again to make the full link of the 80's cover come through:

Bad 80's cover

AgTigress said...

Yes. That 1980s cover is truly nauseating. But in spite of a slightly different style, it could be matched, in both theme and approach, by British covers for Mills & Boon novels going back at least 50 years.

To me, any cover which attempts literally to illustrate a scene from the book is liable to look more like the cover of a children's book than one for an adult. I expect, and prefer, something less literal, more subtle, oblique and symbolic, in any story aimed at an adult readership.

I believe that publishers favour highly pictorial covers for several popular fiction genres (especially romance) in part because they assume that the readers are emotionally and intellectually immature, and therefore prefer kiddy-style covers. In practice, the situation is infinitely more complex than that, and includes large numbers of readers who roll their eyes and cringe at the covers, but still buy the books because they are sophisticated enough to know that ultimately, only the text really matters.